I grew up on Cape Cod, not far from Hyannisport. My family used to boat in the same waters as the Kennedy family, and occasionally picnicked on the same spit of sand in Lewis Bay. They were parishioners at St. Francis Xavier, in Hyannis, and we at St. Pius X, in South Yarmouth - the next parish over. Our surname was Irish, too, and our ancestors were from Co. Donegal and Co. Waterford.
There were few Irish Catholic families in our part of the Cape at that time. There were people who refused to do business with my father then because of what and who we were. There were families who didn't want their kids playing with us because of what and who we were. I remember the scorn shown me for wearing a Kennedy button on my coat to the bus stop, placed there by my mother. And I remember my father telling me that he voted for Richard Nixon in 1960, and then spent the night rooting for John Kennedy.
We stood on the side walk of Main Street in Hyannis and watched the car carrying him and his lovely wife pass by, the top down, both of them waving. And I recall the crowd on South Street, where the National Armory building was, the day after he was elected President. I remember being in Ms. McKeon's science class on the second floor of the John Simpkins School on that Friday afternoon when the principal announced over the loud speaker that the President had been shot.
I was a high school senior when Robert Kennedy announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President, and even sent him an invitation to my graduation, such was my fervent support and youthful naivete. A large group of us were sleeping at a friend's house to celebrate our graduation when we learned that he had died.
In 1980, I was swept up again in the magic of the moment that there would be another Kennedy candidacy for the White House, although Edward never had the gravitas, I thought, of his brothers. Nonetheless, I watched and listened, and like so many others thought I detected a quiet sense of relief in him when he knew that quest was over. By that time, my own involvement in elective politics, as candidate, office holder and speech writer were nearly over.
At age 60 now, there has never been a time in my life since I became aware of politics when there has not been a Kennedy to influence the course of American history or to determine the national debate. Until this week. There has never been a time in my life when a Kennedy was not on the field of political battle to champion the issues which seemed so important to me, too. Until this week.
It wasn't that one had to follow Senator Kennedy's every move in the Senate halls, or on the campaign trail. It wasn't that one had to read the work that was coming out of his office, or monitor his votes on key or quiet issues. It was enough to know he was on the job, that he was carrying the load and lighting the way for all of his ideas and the ideals for which he fought so ferociously.
I spent much of my youth on the waters around Cape Cod as he did, and those waters have become becalmed at the moment. Our boat has been stilled, and the sails hang limp. The way has lost its light for a while, and we wonder who will carry the load. Who among us, among those in positions of responsibility and power, will step up to show the way again?
In the absence of a family member to turn to when his time was nearing the end, he turned, instead, to Barack Obama. He saw something in Obama's candidacy and his character that made Kennedy believe Obama was the man to succeed him with the light and the load.
The President took over a bad hand dealt to us in January - - an economy tanking, war on two fronts, and an obstreperous opposition party that could not be counted on to do a single right thing, let alone many. The challenges facing him before he was even sworn into office were immense, and they remain so these eight months later.
However, the challenge to become larger and to live up to the endorsement given him by the last of the Kennedy brothers may be the greatest of all.
The best measure of a man is the consistency of his actions with his words. Senator Kennedy talked well of the issues important to him, to be sure. His message never changed in all of his years in the Senate, remaining steadfastly loyal to his liberal cause. What distinguished him above all others, though, was the consistency of his actions with those words.
If President Obama needs any guidance on the course he must follow, or the best way to reach its conclusion, he could do far worse than to ask himself what Ted would do.
My words are woefully inadequate, my perspective too recent to the events, to write meaningfully of the moment. I find myself saddened as though a family member has passed on, great weight in the tears sitting just behind my eyes. A poet, a person who has the ability to make words sing and soar, will be needed to capture the magic of the moment so that those who follow us will have some understanding and sense of the air around us this week.
But, we can't wait for that. Someone needs to become larger, and the sooner the better. Nearly one quarter of our country's history has been influenced by a single family, and of them all, Senator Kennedy set the example better than any one of the others. How to lead legislatively has been shown to us - that book has already been written. The question now is who, and let's hope we learn soon.